Alternate universes

I agree with every word of this article. On the other hand, it is so divorced from the reality I experience as a church musician that it may as well be Un Chien Andalou. Even in the comments thread, where it is suggested that $75,000/year is not a realistic number for some parishes and $5,000 might be closer to what would be doable, I have to shake my head and say, “That’s just not the world in which I live.”

I had an e-mail correspondence a few weeks ago with somebody who is very active in the world of Orthodox sacred music. He was responding to my article on choir schools, and while he thought that I had said all the right things to the extent of stating what should be obvious, and there’s no harm in trying to start a conversation, the blunt reality is that apathy and inertia have dominated musical practice in American parishes, and that we’re so far away from what the historical models look like that it’s probably not going to be terribly productive to talk about how things “should” or even “could” be:

Even those examples that you cite in your article are few and far between, no doubt the result of one extraordinary individual’s vision and focused effort. The reality must be “met,” so to speak, on its own, current level. Most parishes don’t even understand the need to hire well-qualified, educated professionals to lead the singing at worship (as they do, for example, in hiring a plumber or an electrician), so most of our churches are filled with well-meaning, dedicated church singers who don’t even know what it is they don’t know. How does one begin to address that?

That’s a great question, that is. How does one begin to address that? I’ve mused about some of this before, but how does one develop a vision in such a way that it can be articulated to others and have them understand, when we’re talking about an overall state of reality in which as soon as you say the words “professionally trained and paid cantor/choir director” (and notice that the correspondent here can’t even bring himself to use the words “choir director”, presumably because even that is to assume something that isn’t the reality at many parishes) you’re likely to encounter blank stares, if not outright hostility?

At least when it’s a blank stare, often it is informed by the plain reality that, minus a state-funded church, we have the level of Orthodox practice and expression for which we’re willing to pay. Traditional Christianity in its various expressions isn’t exactly populated by people who are rolling in dough, folks, at least not in this country; in the publication world, AGAIN has found this out the hard way, and Touchstone appears to be in the process of facing this reality. My own stipend as cantor and choir director is undeniably tiny, far less than what section leaders and soloists get at the Protestant churches up the street when they’re singing significantly less than I do on a weekly basis, but it’s still a burden for the parish. I’ve told the priest and the parish council chair any number of times that it is not about the money for me, not by any means, but I do think it’s important that the community understand that there is a value attached to what somebody like me does. We wouldn’t expect to get icons, architecture, vestments, or incense for free, but there is a mindset out there that assumes musicians are going to understand that providing for their services is something that just cannot be a priority right now, which usually means “not ever.” (Which is roughly where we’re at with being able to improve the acoustics in our nave, unfortunately.)

At the other end of the spectrum from the blank stare is the outright hostility. These are the people who would tell you that we don’t need “professionals” at our church, thank you very much, who also conveniently never come to rehearsal or are willing to put any time into learning to read music, who say that it’s far more important for the Liturgy to be prayerful than well-sung (a false dichotomy which I have always found bizarre and self-serving), and they’d rather have the whole congregation singing together in a different key per worshipper than have the Liturgy sung by the Metropolitan Opera Chorus. Among other issues, this is somebody who doesn’t understand that there is precious little difference between those two scenarios.


This is perhaps one area (of several) where the criticism that America is, at its core, “culturally Protestant” manifests itself unmistakeably. As I’ve said before, we would never tell an iconographer or an architect or a vestment maker that they’re too good at what they do to be able to do it in its fullness in the service of the Church, but many people seem very comfortable telling musicians exactly this (and that’s hardly limited to Orthodox Christianity, in all fairness — it seems to be an American thing in general). We pay lip service to “receiving the tradition,” but we can’t resist putting our own populist, Main Street Baptist Church spin on it, cutting ourselves off from a lot of the good things that we would be exposed to if we just received the tradition without tweaking it. Unfortunately, an approach of “say the black, do the red” is itself treated as a personal preference that isn’t any better than any other personal preference. I’m familiar with a mission parish that made the decision in its early days that congregational singing of everything was going to be one of its foundational principles; the way they accomplished this was simply to never sing any of the proper hymnody except for certain troparia for major feasts that everybody already knew anyway. If “the people” didn’t know it, they didn’t sing it, period, and it didn’t matter what the book said. I have also heard very earnest people refer to Orthodox Christianity in the United States as “an experiment by necessity,” and speaking as somebody who wanted very much to get away from ecclesiastical experiments, such statements trouble me greatly.

On the other hand, in all fairness, it’s not like the Orthodox musical tradition, regardless of national expression, is readily available to learn from a living source in the United States if you’re living deep in the heart of Middle America. For me to learn Byzantine chant from somebody who knows what they’re doing, for example, I either have to drive five hours to Nashville or fly somebody in from the East Coast or the West Coast. (Or, as it worked out, go to Greece for two months.) It’s unrealistic to expect that people are going to have the opportunities to do those things given what seem to be the economic and demographic realities of many parishes. The various jurisdictions have their weekend workshops and whatnot, but they can still be hard to get to, and my own experience of such things is that they tend to be rather idiosyncratic in their presentation of the material. The various seminaries have courses they teach on liturgical music, but again, what I’ve heard about the content is mixed at best. There need to be teachers here who know what they’re doing, but in order for those teachers to be accessible, they themselves have to learn from somebody, and in order for them to learn, there need to be teachers… you see the problem? From a perspective of scarce resources, getting it “good enough” from materials you can find online and having simple music that doesn’t require much more than a willing congregation seems rather practical. (Of course, even simple four-part music takes, well, four parts, not to mention some rehearsal, but never mind that now.) If it isn’t exactly the glory of Byzantine liturgical practice in all of its fullness, well, Orthodox Christianity in the United States is an experiment, remember?

A $75,000 salary for the choir director/cantor of a medium-to-large parish? Must be nice. So far as I know, most priests aren’t being paid that (although I’d love to be wrong). At the present moment, I can’t conceive of Orthodox Christianity in the United States being at a point where even half of this number would be something other than the punchline to a bad joke.


4 Responses to “Alternate universes”

  1. 1 ochlophobist 11 August 2009 at 11:45 pm

    Amen, amen, amen.

    Your point concerning the short shift choir/cantor leaders get in comparison to those who write icons or sew vestments is spot on. It should not be about a prestige thing (the Greek church in my town has an 70K a year organist/choir leader who went to the Harvard Conservatory of Music. He does not lead his congregation’s chanters.), but about the recognition of craft as craft. You took much time and effort to give something concrete to the Church. This should be recognized in the normative manner. Hypothetically speaking, a couple of icons will do to “do church”, but we need a lot more than a couple of hymns.

  2. 2 Basil Crow 22 August 2009 at 8:05 am

    You are correct that it is difficult to find good Byzantine music teachers in North America and that the various jurisdictional workshops leave much to be desired from the point of view of genuine Byzantine music. There are many talented chanters throughout the world who would be willing to teach Byzantine music in North America. While I have seen some initiatives from Greek-speaking communities to bring these experts to the US, I have not seen comparable efforts from the Antiochians. It would be desirable for our hierarchs to facilitate such initiatives. Unfortunately, this has not been a strong point of the Church of Antioch for the past fifty or so years. Even today, both major Byzantine music schools in Lebanon (Tripoli and Mt Lebanon) are relatively new. Furthermore, they are both the results of local efforts, rather than a systematic educational initiative.

    It is unfortunate that many Orthodox Christians in North America are not familiar with our musical tradition, and therefore unappreciative of it (or hostile to it). You mentioned that a major problem is a dearth of resources. Another major problem is that while there are a growing number of resources available online from various sources in English, discernment of the quality of approach of these resources is becoming increasingly important. Unfortunately, although many people are doing some very good quality work, we now have the problem of needing to distinguish between this work and that of those whose process was perhaps less than practical. The essence of this problem is how to distinguish harmful innovations from natural developments in Orthodox tradition. Opinions vary as to the nature of this distinction.

    In 2006 Papa Ephraim of St Anthony’s Monastery ventured an answer to the above question:

    I would appreciate any further reflections on this topic, as well as any relevant writings of Church Fathers. Perhaps this would be a good idea for a paper of some sort.

  3. 3 Michael 28 August 2009 at 11:30 pm

    The church I currently attend has a paid choir director from Russia. The music, to say the least, is outstanding. I was taken by surprise when I discovered she was full-time and the church was covering her room and board plus a salary. That immediately explained to me why this church musically speaking is head and shoulders above any other Orthodox Church I have attended.

  4. 4 Michael 28 August 2009 at 11:35 pm

    I should note however that she was trained at a liturgical seminary in Russia.

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